Unarmed Officers on London’s Front Lines
As British officials promised to end days of widespread riots with “more robust policing,” and 16,000 officers fanned out across London, American readers might be surprised to learn that most members of the force charged with ending the rioting remain unarmed.
Of the more than 32,500 officers in London’s Metropolitan Police Service, just 2,740 were “authorized firearms officers” at last count. Outside the capital, the entire territory of England and Wales is policed with the help of just 4,128 more armed officers.
That might help to explain this striking video, posted online by a blogger named Mike Jelves, which showed rioters charging at police officers and driving them back with apparent ease in one part of London on Monday.
Video recorded on Monday in London showed rioters charging at police officers.
Despite the obvious difficulties officers had in regaining control of the streets on Monday, Britain’s home secretary, Theresa May, resisted calls to deploy troops and let the police use water cannons [sic] against rioters.
In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday morning, Ms. May explained, “The model of British policing that we’ve always used has been a different model to that that we’ve seen on the Continent, so we haven’t in mainland Britain used water cannon.” After her interviewer reminded her that water cannons had been used in the part of the United Kingdom that is not British, Northern Ireland, Ms. May continued: “It has been in Northern Ireland; we haven’t in mainland Britain. The British model of policing has been different — it has been based on consent with local communities.”
Hugh Orde, the president of Britain’s Association of Chief Police Officers, echoed those comments in remarks to Reuters on Tuesday.
and more importantly entirely ineffective” as they were unwieldy and used for fixed locations.
“There has been some very ill-informed comment,” Orde told Reuters. “I think [the prime minister
and home secretary] are confident that robust policing using the traditional British model of minimum
use of force, albeit … proportionate but very robust, will deal with this issue.
Despite those objections, in new remarks on Wednesday morning, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “whatever resources the police need, they will get; whatever tactics the police feel they need to deploy, they will have legal backing to do so.” He added: “while they are not currently needed, we now have in place contingency plans for water cannon to be available at 24 hours notice.”
Even when a decision was made to authorize the use of plastic bullets, known as baton rounds, against looters, a senior Metropolitan Police officer told The Guardian that officers would be asked to show restraint before firing munitions that are not supposed to be lethal. Steven Kavanagh, the deputy assistant commissioner of the London force, said: “We are not going to throw away 180 years of policing with communities quickly. The repercussions and change to the way we police if we take the decision to use them will be long-lasting.”
Since this post was originally published, several readers from Britain have submitted an interesting batch of comments in the thread below, noting that there is no groundswell of support for arming police officers there. The readers argue that this is in large part because restrictions on gun ownership mean that British criminals are not often armed either. They also point to statistics showing that the number of Americans killed in gun crimes each year is orders of magnitude higher than the numbers killed in Britain.
As the BBC reported on a live blog devoted to the riots, armed officers from an elite special unit of the London police force, known as CO19, were responsible for the event that sparked the chaos, the killing of a young man in Tottenham during an arrest on Thursday.
After members of that same force shot and killed a Brazilian man they mistook for a suicide bomber on a London train in 2005, a Sky News reporter, Mark White, was granted access to CO19, to make a documentary and a series of reports on the challenges its members faced in deciding when to use lethal force. This report shows CO19 officers attempting to keep an illegal firearm from being used to commit a crime:
Statistics compiled by a watchdog group in Britain show that while 320 people have died after contact with officers in London since 1990, only 21 were killed in shootings. In the past three years, just one person has been shot and killed by officers in the city.
Given that London’s police force is slightly smaller than New York’s, and deals with a bigger population, it is interesting to place that single recent fatality alongside the new record low for fatal police shootings set in New York in 2010, when eight people were killed by officers. Since 1990, a New York Police Department report on “shooting restraint” shows, officers have shot and killed 375 people.
A particularly vivid example of the sort of response officials hope to see from elders in the communities torn apart by rioting was captured on video in the London neighborhood of Hackney, where a woman apparently berated looters. Part of the woman’s tirade is featured in this video report from Channel 4 News:
Similarly, in an interview with Channel 4 News, the partner of the man who was shot and killed by the police also denounced the riots that followed a small, peaceful protest march last week. “It’s got out of hand,” Semone Wilson said. “It’s not connected to this anymore. It’s got nothing to do with the march. This is out of control, it’s out of control. Innocent people are getting hurt and children have got no homes. It’s just not needed.”
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